Commissioned to celebrate the coronation of the present Queen, Gloriana was a rare flop for Benjamin Britten. Its story of silly, handsome Robert Devereux’s ascent and descent in the affections of the ageing Elizabeth I is doubly hampered by the Tudorbethan argot of William Plomer’s libretto and the composer’s garish orchestration of John Dowland’s lute songs. For every moment of beauty and brilliance, there is another of thumb-twiddling banality.
In response to the complex layers of history in this 1950s adaptation of a 1920s book (Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex), director Richard Jones adds another layer, framing Britten’s opera in an amateur civic pageant where the newly crowned Elizabeth II watches her predecessors take the throne in reverse order, as a battalion of schoolboys hold up letters to spell the names of the royal houses: Windsor, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, Hanover, Stuart. This is no idle homage to The Ladybird Book of Kings and Queens. It’s a serious play about nostalgia and modernity, tradition and change. Watched intently by the Mayor and Mayoress, the anxious choir mistress and a St John Ambulance worker, the curtain on the opera itself is raised by a new Briton, one of the Windrush generation, whose daughter presents the Queen with a bouquet. That little girl, a pensioner now, is arguably the most important person on stage.
As Britten’s opera unfolds, the centuries blur in Ultz’s designs. A carousel horse tilts and rears in the jousting scene. Costermongers in brown overalls roll out artificial grass for a bountiful display of marrows as Andrew Tortoise’s clean, sweet tenor sings the Masque of Time and Concord, the chorus pin-perfect in the mock-Tudor madrigals. A papist is boiled in a pot by a tribe of tiny savages, his sticky end a foretaste of the brutal execution of ardent, ambitious Essex (Toby Spence), a soldier and poet “too touchy and too hot” for the besotted Elizabeth (Susan Bullock). Winded by the dancing of pavane and volta, the sexagenarian Virgin Queen discharges her frustration in the public humiliation of Essex’s wife Frances (Patricia Bardon). Instead of Bette Davis’s Elizabeth, we have Bette Davis’s Margo Channing: camp, monstrous and magnificent.
In this uneven, self-conscious work, one scene is critical: Essex’s intrusion on the Queen’s private chamber. Wigless and bald, Bullock is frozen in shame, fury and grief. Essex’s refrain “Queen of my life” rings hollow, while Elizabeth’s melismas, touchingly shaped by Bullock, are a lament for lost years as much as they are a lament for him. All that remains is to sign his execution order, and to deliver the speeches that Britten would not, or could not, turn into song. Will Gloriana be staged again? Not soon, and not as wittily. Though coordination problems persist under conductor Paul Daniel, this is an accomplished cast, from Spence’s elegant Essex and Bullock’s scalded Elizabeth to Clive Bayley and Jeremy Carpenter’s scheming Raleigh and Cecil.
Tickets for Garsington’s Hänsel und Gretel are not cheap, but holiday- makers on Skegness beach will be able to watch a live screening for free next Sunday. Pack tissues if you’re going, for an Evening Prayer more exquisite than that sung by Anna Devin (Gretel) and Claudia Huckle (Hänsel) is hard to imagine.
Olivia Fuchs’s staging touches lightly on contemporary hysteria over paedophilia and too much television. These threats pale next to two angry parents (Yvonne Howard and William Dazely) and a cannibalistic witch in a candyfloss wig (Susan Bickley). Niki Turner’s designs evoke the enchantments and terrors of childhood reading with a pop-up cottage that springs from the canvas pages of a giant volume of Grimm fairytales. Wim Wenders angels watch the children’s every move, brilliantly choreographed by Sarah Fahie. Martin André conducts a tough-love reading of Humperdinck’s score, airy and unsentimental, with excellent work from the bassoons and flutes.
‘Gloriana’ to 6 July (roh.org.uk); ‘Hänsel und Gretel’ (garsingtonopera .org) to 11 July
Future opera stars take to the Covent Garden stage in the Jette Parker Young Artists’ performance of excerpts from Die Zauberflöte, Anna Bolena, L’elisir d’amore, Eugene Onegin and La rondine (today). Cheltenham Music Festival opens with Schubert, Mozart and Dvorak from Till Fellner and the Belcea Quartet at the Pitville Pump Room, Cheltenham (Wed).
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